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Master Gardener: Tips to help your plants survive the winter

Master Gardener: Tips to help your plants survive the winter

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Each year, it seems like some of my plants that were fine, did not come back in the spring. How can I help them survive the winter? MW

I will admit, sometimes it seems like a plant that should be just fine over-wintering here, doesn’t make it. This can be disappointing because we not only have a financial investment in these plants but also an emotional one, not to mention the hours we have spent nurturing and caring for them.

So what’s the secret? Well, there’s not really a secret, but there are some things you can do to help improve the chances of success for your garden.

First of all, purchase plants that are appropriate for our growing zone. Tulsa is in the 6b growing zone (for the most part). For those unfamiliar with this term, the country is divided into several cold hardiness zones assigned by the USDA. A zone rating of 6b means that our average annual extreme minimum temperature usually doesn’t exceed 0 to -5 degrees … usually.

The key to understanding growing zones is to acknowledge that the zone information is based on an average. Some years it’s warmer and some years it’s colder. The warmer ones don’t usually hurt us, but the colder ones sure can. Case in point, many of our vegetable gardens got shut down by the weather just a few weeks ago, while we tend to say our vegetable gardens should be good until mid-November … on average.

I am guessing that most of us have some “zone marginal” plants in our garden. By “zone marginal,” I mean plants that are rated for our area but may be just on the edge. For example, let’s say we fell in love with a plant and 6b was the coldest growing zone it was rated to survive in. And then along comes a winter that is colder than normal, maybe even getting down to 10 degrees below zero or so. Those 6b rated plants are not going to do so well. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have them in your garden, it just means you shouldn’t get too attached.

Gardeners deal with this all the time by using a work-around. Suppose you absolutely love a plant that’s rated for growing zone 8 or higher. Growing zone 8 plants are rated to survive cold temperatures down to about 10 to 15 degrees. But you know you can’t live without this plant. So the key is to plant it in a pot you can bring indoors during the winter. Yes, it is some trouble, but some relationships are just worth the trouble, and we all know it’s true.

The second thing you can do to help your plants survive the winter is to keep them healthy during the rest of the year. This means mulching, fertilizing, pruning and watering, etc. Plants that should survive our winters oftentimes do not because they have not been taken care of during the rest of the year. Like any relationship, you are going to need to invest some time and effort into it.

The best times to fertilize your plants is during the active growing season. This is typically from early spring to about mid-August. During this time, the plants will be able to best utilize the nutrients. Otherwise, much of the nitrogen applied at non-ideal times of the year will be lost due to vaporization or leaching. The only exception to this would be if you have had a soil test that determined your soil to be deficient in certain nutrients.

Another way to help your plants survive the winter is to avoid pruning them from mid-August to the first freeze. Pruning during this time, when the plants are still actively growing, can stimulate growth and this new growth will be susceptible to colder temperatures. We have some great information on our website under lawn and garden care about when to prune a large variety of plants, trees and shrubs.

Next, you need to remember that plants need water in the winter as well, especially broadleaf or narrowleaf evergreens. If we have an especially dry winter, they are going to need a good soaking about once a month.

Knowing how much to water also means you need to know your soil. Is it a porous sandy loam type of soil or is it hard clay? Each type of soil needs a different watering strategy. Sandy loams are pretty simple because water is absorbed readily. However, clay soils will need to be watered much slower to allow absorption. You may even need to punch some holes in the soil to help the water make its way to the roots.

Mulch is another great addition to your garden to help plants survive the winter. However, winter mulch should be applied after the first killing frost. Because mulch helps regulate and keep soil temperatures more consistent, if you mulch too soon, the roots will stay warmer and this will tend to fool it into thinking it is still growing season.

Plants in un-mulched soil can get confused by a few warm days into growing new buds, only to have those frozen when the temperatures return to normal winter weather. But be sure to keep the mulch about 6 inches away from the trunk of trees and shrubs because mulch up next to the trunk can contribute to damage as it keeps the trunk moist.

If you follow these tips, you should be well on your way to enjoying your favorite plants for years to come.


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You can get answers to all your gardening questions by calling the Tulsa Master Gardeners Help Line at 918-746-3701, dropping by our Diagnostic Center at 4116 E. 15th St., or by emailing us at mg@tulsamastergardeners.

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